Women leaders of the civil rights movement

During Black History Month, students and teachers nationwide approach topics that address the struggles and triumphs of “the black man” in America. And much too often, the month-long celebration of African-American history is presented as such: the struggles and triumphs of the black man.

A minority within a minority, black women are almost nonexistent in textbooks and other historical resources that discuss figures who helped partake in the development of the Civil Rights Movement.

Sure, many are familiar with names like Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, women who advocated for social change. The amount of praise, however, given to the women does not match the amount of effort put into the movement by these silent warriors.

Dr. Sara Frear, associate professor of history, said male-dominated efforts often overshadowed the works and contributions made by women during the movement and that these frustrations helped shape the women’s own movement.

The fact that black women did not garner as much national attention as their male counterparts does not underscore the sacrifices and efforts made by women to bring about social equality. Although their names may not resonate as loudly as Malcolm X or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., their works and contributions were seminal in the movement and unequivocally helped eliminate institutionalized racism.

Clara Luper

The spirit of protest does not embody any civil rights figure more than that of Clara Luper, a high school history teacher in Oklahoma City. In 1958, Luper helped spark the sit-in protest movement, a series of civilly disobedient acts that consisted of black radicals occupying segregated lunch counters demanding, in a respectful manner, to be served.

The first black student admitted into the University of Oklahoma’s graduate program, Luper became a trailblazer at an early age, obtaining her master’s degree from the school in 1951.

As a history teacher at Dunjee High School in the Cinderella City, Luper quickly became a prominent figure in the community. Arrested 26 times during civil rights protests, she had a reputation for lashing out against laws that discriminated against blacks.

In 1957, Luper was appointed youth adviser for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Youth Council at her local branch. Often putting her own children in harm’s way for her protests, Luper determined to utilize the youth to enact social change. On Aug. 19, 1958, she did just that.

Armed with three other adult chaperones and 14 members of the NAACP Youth Council, Luper led the group of protesters into the segregated Katz drugstore in Oklahoma City.

Luper and the protesters sat at the front counter and asked to be served Coca-Colas. After being denied by the servers, who cited that the establishment did not serve blacks at the counter, the protesters refused to leave until closing time.

They continued to occupy the drugstore every Saturday for several months. After six months of persistence, the Katz drugstore headquarters finally agreed to integrate its 38 drugstores in Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa.

News of Luper’s success quickly spread throughout the NAACP and inspired many branches across the nation to begin sit-in protests, including the famous sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C.

Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma commented on Luper’s heroism at the activist’s funeral last June. “She was a true pioneer woman in the Oklahoma fashion who blazed trails for fellow Oklahomans and fellow Americans,” Fallin said, adding that Luper was an American hero who stood up for civil and individual liberties.

Luper’s efforts to end segregation were a starting point for public integration and gave the movement something it desperately needed — morale.

Her sharp tongue and refusal to be labeled a subordinate because of her race and gender earned her ranks among the most influential leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

Daisy Bates

Daisy Bates, an activist and leader from Arkansas, became one of the first to push for racial equality in the state and played a vital role as the driving force behind the Little Rock Nine, a group of black students who gained national attention for their integration into a previously all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Bates began her career as an editor for the Arkansas State Press, a publishing company founded by her husband, L.C. Bates. She was able to use her skills as an investigative journalist to shed light on incidents throughout the state and nation that impacted the black community.

When Gov. Orval Faubus publicly announced his intention to stop the court-ordered desegregation of Central High School by placing the National Guard in front of the school to deny blacks entrance, Bates quickly intervened.

After rallying nine black students who were willing to integrate Central High, Bates made an appeal to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, asking for help in challenging the governor. Eisenhower responded by sending in the 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock to enforce the ruling by the court.

Jefferson Thomas, one of the Little Rock Nine, recalled being asked by a Central High administrator if “Mrs. Daisy Bates” had contacted him, as she was someone who stirred up trouble in the community. Thomas replied with one word: “No.”

When later asked by his mother why he lied about knowing Bates, Thomas replied, “I didn’t know he was talking about our Daisy Bates.” It was the first time he had ever heard a white man refer to a person of color with a title.

Bates’ ability to challenge those in authoritative positions and effectively communicate with the nation’s foremost leaders marked a demeanor that was unprecedented in the movement. Her persona was one of an individual who did not request, but rather demanded respect.

Lena Horne

Advances in civil rights were not limited to bold acts of civil disobedience but also came about from popular culture.

Perhaps the most stunning entertainer to ever grace Hollywood, personality-wise and in physical appearance, Lena Horne stands out as more than a talented actress and singer. The beautiful musician was able to break down barriers in the industry that would eventually open many doors for people of color.

Starting out as a performer at the Cotton Club, a popular night club in New York City, Horne garnered attention for her ability to captivate audiences with classy and sophisticated interpretations of show tunes.

Her assets in both beauty and song earned her a starring role in the 1943 musical film “Cabin in the Sky,” a production that featured some of the era’s most talented black entertainers, including Ethel Waters and Louis Armstrong. She declined roles, however, in films that stereotyped blacks.

In addition to declining racist roles, Horne took a strong stance against racism by refusing to entertain segregated audiences, particularly when she performed for soldiers overseas during World War II.

During one performance, Horne noticed that the black soldiers had been forced to sit toward the back, behind German soldiers. In response, she stepped off stage and began performing where the black soldiers were seated with the German soldiers to her back.

Horne soon became a staple in American television during the ’50s and ’60s, making regular appearances on variety programs such as “The Dean Martin Show” and “The Judy Garland Show.” Her appearances on these shows, coupled with her elegant and graceful style, helped change people’s views of blacks at the time.

“She was one of the first to break down color barriers for blacks in the industry,” said Debora Burnett, director of financial aid operations. “She may not have participated in all of the marches or been a part of every protest, but she contributed to the movement in ways no one else could have.”

Whether it was Luper’s determination, Bates’ feisty attitude or Horne’s graceful yet demanding stance towards racism, these women were able to tear apart the threads of racism that bound America.

And they were able to do it in a manner that is sometimes inconvenient for the egos of some men — quietly and without national recognition

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